The Original Affluent Society and Thoughts on a Simple Life

Credits: Matt Aherton

Imagine:

  • You only work 3- 4 hours everyday and rest and enjoy for the rest of the day.
  • You are surrounded by your friends and relatives and know each other very intimately for most of your life. Privacy is often/sometimes compromised, but loneliness is rare.
  • You change where you live every other week with your community or group of friends and travel/live in a new place. Would you ever need a vacation then?
  • As you move from place to place you find new food, as in different places you find a ‘marvelously varied diet.’ How would it feel tasting food from all over the place?
  • As you eat a varied diet, you rarely suffer from malnutrition. You are always fit and healthy.
  • You live in a community where violence between adults are extremely rare. There are no leadership hierarchy, and domineering people are generally shunned and looked down upon.
  • You live in a society where people were generous with their few possessions, and were not obsessed with success or wealth. Social interactions and high quality friendships were the highest valuations of life.

In this Imagination, we are talking about a reality that actually existed hundreds of years ago. However, the picture was not always so rosy. You always had to be aware of venomous creatures and the man eating animals. As a result, you were ‘on the run’ all the time. Average life expectancy was just thirty to forty years on average because most children couldn’t make it through the perilous first years.

Moreover, reality could have been unimaginably cruel or even posed questions of morality compared to recent times. For example, foragers would occasionally abandon or kill old or disabled people who could not keep up with the band. Unwanted babies or children might be slain. Even until the 1960s, the Ache people of Paraguay used to customarily kill a little girl when a valued member would die. People who would fall sick would be left under a tree and the vultures would be preying for them.

But, why do I even mention this?

The reason for the imagination (which no longer exist) and the reality (where we are right now) is because of a postulating theory in anthropology. This theory was first articulated by an american anthropologist Marshall Sahlins at a symposium titled “Man the Hunter” in 1966.

Why is the theory important?

The theory attacks at a basic notion of our thinking that while our common sense might tell us that these hunter-gatherer societies were primitive; they were on the other hand, might be very well be, well-off than the ‘modern us’.

How?

Marshall Sahlins argues that, these hunter gatherers’ life is about a “Zen road to affluence, where they desired the basic, the little.” They consumed less energy per capita per year than any other group of human beings. They were easily satisfied.

Comparing to the western way towards affluence, which Marshall terms as the “Galbraithean way” where “man’s wants are great, not to say infinite, whereas his means are limited…” and “the gap between means and ends can eventually be narrowed by industrial productivity.” Marshall Sahlins argues that these hunter-gatherer and western societies take separate roads to affluence; the former by desiring little, the latter by producing much than needed. The Hunter-gatherers experience “affluence without abundance” as they simply meet their required ends and do not need any surplus nor material possessions as that would be an hindrance to their nomadic lifestyle.

What are the consequences of Industrial Productivity?

Industrial productivity has brought along the expansion of international trade, traffic and capital movements. We have mechanized agriculture which has reduced farmers and also caused massive urbanization. It has increased our wages, goods have become more affordable and accessible. The quality of medication has increased, therefore, unwanted deaths are few.

On the other hand, population has increased, pollution has become multifold, biodiversity and wildlife habitat are threatened, animals are becoming extinct. the main cause for global warming and climate change can be traced back to this moment in human history. In some countries, the working conditions for industry laborers are poorer than the agrarian ones. Safer, secured life has given a rise to unhealthy habits, including sedentary behaviors such as watching television, fried and processed foods.

But the Question is: Can we mix those two ideas together to fit the now?

Thoughts on a simple life:

Looking back at the argument, I am reminded of a famous quote from Mokokoma Mokhonoana, which I have recently adopted as a mental model:

“Nature imposes needs and society sells wants”

What does Nature impose?

  • Food: A multivaried diet that has enough nutrients, water rich and balances the alkaline and acidic contents of our body.
  • Clothes: Clothes that will help us thrive in favorable climate and protect us from the unfavorable ones.
  • Education: To excel, to make sense of the world and how it operates. To understand and love the living beings around us and how can we realize and live our highest self within our surroundings.
  • Shelter: To provide us privacy and protection from our surroundings and nature.
  • Healthcare: To help us thrive and live in both favorable and unfavorable circumstances.
  • Community: People are not just rational, they are also social, and hence the need for connectivity is immense.
  • Creativity: It is positively related with education, as expression of one’s self is channeled through once creativity.

What does Society Sell?

  • Food: If we are looking through a meat and plant based diet perspective that our ancestors used to eat, often they are the most affordable ones. However, these shops also sells sugary foods, baked products and processed foods that is never found in nature.
  • Clothes: Society has long ago met the need for clothes that meet the climate conditions, but creativity of different sorts has given rise to brands and expensive fashion. Society sells the latest brands and the latest trend in clothing. If you don’t buy and wear them, society makes you look and feel outdated. But its all a perception. The more clothes we produce, the by-products of these industries are also an accelerator to climate change.
  • Education: A must need. However, the means of education is perceived differently according to given ecology, environment and economic conditions. A lot of prosperous nations have abashed the regulation of nature to better economic gains in the past. However, at present, the world including us are paying the price for it.
  • Shelter: How big of a house does a family of four need? From poor to rich, generally majority are fascinated with the concept of a bigger house than they already have.
  • Healthcare: Times have changed when we had to abandon someone because of their unknown disease like the bubonic plague. Disable people can enjoy the benefit of prosthetic and robotic limbs. But where does the income of healthcare industry come from? Mainly from foods and services that are sold as a want.
  • Community: Our rationality has accepted loneliness and suffering from it. How? Although biologically our interaction is still at human-human or human-nature phase, society is selling us a rapid progression towards a human-computer phase and we are readily buying it without asking a question because we want everything to be bigger, better and efficient. We don’t know the next door neighbour anymore becuase we are succumbed into YouTube, Facebook and virtual reality.
  • Creativity: If creativity is an expression of one’s own highest self, we must also consider if this creativity is bringing a good or a bad upon the world. This is where I feel, the ethics of education needs to be rethought and retaught.

Marshall Sahlins was an aficionado of Karl Polanyi, who is an economic historian, economic anthropologist and social philosopher. Karl Polanyi was famous for his book The Great Transformation. He was known for his opposition against free market capitalism, and argued that these ideas have resulted in persistent unemployment, inequality and a sever financial crisis over the years. David Graeber, another prominent economic anthropologist, has also argued that the concept of reciprocity has now eventually changed into a ‘criminalization of debt’ fueled by temptation and burnt by tensions.

In short, The bigger and the better has actually came to bite back on us.

Minimalism: A Soution and balance between the Two?

Can Minimalism become a solution between the two? Can mixing the ideas together of the primitive society and the modern help us balance?

Can we actually try to understand what are the needs that we have to fulfill which are imposed on the nature and nurture them?

Moreover, when we have a satisfaction of fulfillment can we choose to be indifferent on what society are selling us?

Just like the dieticians who are heavily focused on maintaining their health from nature’s imposed fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, meat and eggs and also doesn’t mind eating that cheesecake once in a week; can we also embrace the concept of minimalism to encorportate the nature’s imposed values and lifestyle into our daily lives, and also enjoy the benefit from society’s creativity?

Getting rid of things we don’t want or need, or leaving a cluttered environment can make an uncluttered, simple life. If we can let go of an obsession with material things, or an obsession with doing everything and doing too much, we can lower our stress.

If we take on the idea of the primitive societies as the original affluent one, using the benefits of that model can make our lives less stressful, less expensive and more in-depth with human interaction. We will have more time for creating, for loved ones, for peace and for doing the things that would give us joy as it is more related to our biological concerns.

Its more sustainable, and easier to organize.

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Reading, writing, listening and speaking all about human behavior. Reach me at kamaltouhid@gmail.com

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Touhid Kamal

Touhid Kamal

Reading, writing, listening and speaking all about human behavior. Reach me at kamaltouhid@gmail.com

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